Saturday, March 14, 2009

Agatho on Truth

Nor has it remained unknown that the inventors of new dogma have been shewn to be the followers of heretics, and not the walkers in the footsteps of the holy Fathers: therefore whoever wishes to colour any error of his whatever, is condemned by the light of truth, as the Apostle of the Gentiles says, "For everything that doth make manifest is light," for the truth ever remains constant and the same, but falsehood is ever varying, and in its wanderings adopting things mutually contradictory. On this account the inventors of the new dogma have been shewn to have taught things mutually contradictory, because they were not willing to be followers of the Evangelical and Apostolic faith.

Letter of St. Agatho to the Third Council of Constantinople
. This is an interesting document of the Faith that is too often overlooked.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Profound and Hidden Things

Daniel said,
Let the name of God be blessed forever and ever,
For wisdom and power belong to Him.
It is He who changes the times and the epochs;
He removes kings and establishes kings;
He gives wisdom to wise men
And knowledge to men of understanding.
It is He who reveals the profound and hidden things;
He knows what is in the darkness,
And the light dwells with Him.

Daniel 2:20-22

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Purim Spoof

I laughed at this Purim spoof post at the Jewish Daily Forward:

The Elders of Zion, the venerable and shadowy Jewish organization that controls the international banking industry, news media and Hollywood, has announced that it is disbanding so that members can retire to Florida and live out their golden years on the golf course.

The best line in the post: "World domination just doesn’t resonate with the younger generation of Jews."

Unfortunately, there are still too many people in the world who cannot see the utter and obvious absurdity of the whole Elders of Zion nonsense. That seems a good thing to pray about this Lent.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Poem Re-Draft

(ADDED LATER: It suddenly occurred to me that not everyone might be familiar with the name "Dhruvasimha." In certain strains of Buddhism, Dhruvasimha, sometimes Dhruvasinha, (the name means 'Steadfast Lion') is the Buddha of the animal world; the symbol of Dhruvasimha's Buddha consciousness is the book, because language allows the asking of questions, and the asking of questions is itself the overcoming of animal ignorance.)


Beyond the first awareness is the seed,
source untouched by any craving need,
spark forever steadfast in its light,
constant in reflection and in fight:
thinker is but thought, and doer deed.

Sacred text in hand, the lion waits;
teaching is the path through golden gates
that reaches other realms and then
byssal depths of light beyond all ken.
One question given, answers dissipate.

Lion for reflection on the plains,
Free of deep delusion, in the rains
looks out on golden grasses and the sky;
golden eyes outlook all things that die.
Self once overcome, no self remains;
thoughts devoid of craving know no pain.

Plato's View of Philosophy

[What I devote myself to] is not something that can be put into words like other studies; but after long-continued interaction between teacher and student in joint pursuit of the matter, suddenly, like light leaping out when fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and thereafter nourishes itself.

Plato, Epistle VII (341c)

On John Norris, Eclecticism, and Derivative Philosophy

Lawrence Nolan, in his review of Mander's The Philosophy of John Norris:

But, as it turns out, this argument is not original to Norris. Malebranche first uses this "argument from properties," as it is sometimes called in the secondary literature, in Elucidation 10, appended to the third edition of the Search (1678), and then again in the Dialogues on Metaphysics (1688). The only difference is that rather than using it as a negative argument to eliminate Cartesian nativism as a possible competitor to his own view, Malebranche uses it as an independent positive argument for the conclusion that ideas are in God. If anything, Norris' use of the argument is regressive for it figures in the argument from elimination that commentators have found problematic in Malebranche's philosophy and that Malebranche himself ultimately abandons in favor of positive arguments.

But Malebranche does not, in fact, abandon the negative argument, although it certainly becomes less important for his thought over time. The negative (or eliminative) argument is retained in the Search in every edition of the work revised by Malebranche, and is even developed by the addition of new arguments. Likewise, commentators have found Malebranche's eliminative argument problematic because it's difficult to see what the underlying principle of division is: he goes through several possibilities, and treats them as if they were comprehensive, but it is not obvious why they would be. Moreover, when Norris lays out the eliminative argument, he is quite clear that he is summarizing Malebranche on the subject. (His summary is quite admirable as a summary, in fact; it sets out all of Malebranche's main arguments without serious distortion but does so far more concisely than Malebranche does.)

Where Norris is really original, I think, is precisely where Nolan says he looks eclectic: that is, he takes scholastic arguments much, much more seriously than Malebranche did, and therefore takes the trouble to answer them. He recognizes, for instance, that one of the more powerful alternatives to the vision in God thesis is the scholastic doctrine of the agent intellect, and so (unlike Malebranche) takes the trouble to try to tear it down by argument. Even if this is merely on the critical side, it is innovative and new; no other early modern figure, even Leibniz, actually takes the trouble to argue against the schoolmen as systematically as Norris does, and thus actually face the challenge of the massive structures of argument and analysis they present. So we find throughout Norris extensive discussions of Malebranche and the scholastics.

Further, part of the reason a reader might think that Norris is unoriginal is that Norris is quite frank in his debt to Malebranche: if we trust Norris's own account (and we have no reason not to do so) Norris had worked his way to his basic position on his own and then found, as we would say, that he had been 'scooped' by Malebranche already, and that Malebranche had come up with several arguments he hadn't thought of. For Norris, one might say, philosophy is a cooperative venture in which people come together as students to learn from Truth itself, and consistent with this he goes out of his way to credit those who came up with ideas before he did, or who had developed arguments and ideas he did not; and when he thinks an argument needs to be rejected, he takes the trouble to try to understand the argument and show where it goes wrong. This is one of Norris's refreshing characteristics: many of the big names in the era also took arguments and ideas from others, but went through great lengths to cover the fact that they were doing so, and often avoid dealing with arguments by descending into ridicule.

And this raises the puzzle of why anyone would consider adjectives like 'eclectic' and 'derivative' to be so devastating a criticism of any historical philosopher as to make them unworthy of in-depth consideration. We already know that you can be eclectic and yet highly creative: Norris's eclecticism pales beside Leibniz's, but no one thinks 'eclectic' is some devastating indictment of Leibniz's creativity, because he is obviously creative. And so, too, is Norris, in his own way. Likewise, if we are going to penalize philosophers as being 'derivative' if they make use of the work of others without trying to hide the fact that they are doing so, we are in effect proposing a false and unsustainable view of philosophy, in which it is really the work of lonely and isolated geniuses who make up ideas and arguments whole cloth, and not at all of those who take these ideas and arguments and develop them in several ways. Norris certainly does develop things on his own, even if his starting points are derived from others. And, really, this is not really different from anyone else, even if other people are not so obvious and frank about what they owe to others. Unless the label 'derivative' is simply being used to say that someone added nothing new at all, it is a troublesome label to use: even creative geniuses aren't operating in a void, and even people who are not creative geniuses in a very narrow sense, but are largely just building on the work of others, can do philosophy. For Norris is right: philosophy is a cooperative venture.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Notes for Noting, Links for Thinking

* A very charming science fiction story, "Such is Fate," by Arsen Darnay, read aloud (in a way that is also charming) and discussed. It was the first time I had actually come across it, despite the fact that it seems to be something of a minor classic (published in 1974). A nice thing about the Internet is that it has the potential to make obscure classics less obscure. I liked the story quite a bit; it has a sort of Olaf Stapledon sweep, with more sense of humor. (Hat-tip to Arsen Darnay himself)

* Speaking of audio SF online, I've found that it's fairly easy to find the excellent X Minus One series online. X Minus One was an absolutely exquisite science fiction radio show, adapting short stories by some of the great names in science fiction -- Bradbury, Asimov, Heinlein, Dick, Sturgeon, Blish, and others. I especially recommend the following:

Almost Human
The Cold Equations
To the Future
Star Bright
The Old Die Rich
Surface Tension
The Lifeboat Mutiny
Protective Mimicry
Chain of Command
The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway
The Merchants of Venus

* And since I'm speaking of radio classics, Inner Sanctum is awesome, too. It was a sort of horror/suspense show, whose ghoulish host, Raymond became a sort of classic in his own right, spawning many imitations. One of the charming facets of the show was that it was sponsored by, of all things Lipton's Tea, whose representative during the commercial break was Mary, a cheerful, sensible woman (she was selling brisk iced tea, after all), whose interactions with the morbid host became classics in their own right. (One of the pleasant things about a lot of classic radio shows, those for adults, at least, was that they were creative in their handling of the advertising. The Burns & Allen Show was famous for putting the product placement in the most hilariously bizarre places, for instance. But nobody ever topped the sensible charm and wit of Mary clashing with the bad death-related puns of the host of Inner Sanctum.

* Is our particular version of society a Ponzi scheme, whereby we raise our standard of living by making things harder and harder for future generations? Joseph Romm suggests so.

* Nathanael Robinson tagged me with a meme; but I find, unfortunately, that I can't play. The idea is to "Think of 15 albums that had such a profound effect on you they changed your life." But there are no albums have changed my life in any way. I was an early foreshadowing of what is to come: the Album-less Generations, where albums exist, certainly, but where individual songs are so easily separable from their albums that the albums become thoroughly incidental. There have been albums I've liked; U2's Joshua Tree is an obvious one. But the days of thinking in terms of albums are vanishing, and I was one of the early symptoms of their fate.

* Apparently some state legislators in Connecticut (PDF) have decided it would be a good idea for the state of Connecticut to have laws reorganizing the structure of the Catholic Church. Needless to say, lots of Catholics are somewhat annoyed by this. It's pretty close to requirements in a number of other states, already, as parts of their incorpration laws; and is actually less of a change from the current situation than one might think (the current law is here). The main point of controversy is that it would guarantee that the bishop has no authority in deciding on any monetary or financial matters (if the diocese incorporates). In any case, here is the justification for the bill by one of the sponsors.

* Obama will continue the use of signing statements. He promises to be "responsible" in the use of them, but this is not good enough. President Obama, if Congress sends you unconstitutional legislation, veto it rather than engage in this practice of dubious constitutionality yourself.

* Microsoft has a bit of software called Songsmith that, given vocals, automatically adds background music by some sort of statistical method. It was inevitable that someone would try it with actual songs. And it turns out that it thinks Michael Jackson's "Beat It" is techno-pop, Billy Idol's "White Wedding" is bluegrass, Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" is polka (which is actually one of the better ones), Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" is a slow pop ballad, The Eagles's "Hotel California" is electro-pop, The Police's "Roxanne" is slightly Carribbean latin music, and Sara Bareilles's "Love Song" is rock. Some of them, like Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Eyes" still manage to be bearable, if mindlessly generic, but some of them are just insane. Proof that computers won't be competition for musicians anytime soon.


* The SEP has a nice article up about the early modern manualist tradition of the Navya-Nyaya school in India. The whole Nyaya tradition is something that should be taught more widely in philosophy programs; it was highly logical in its approach to philosophy, with a carefully worked out theory of inference, and in the Navya-Nyaya branch this combined with another metaphysical school to develop a carefully reasoned system of metaphysics based on empirical observation.

National Self-Image II

So we not only invented the automobile, we invented democracy, too:

A veteran politician, Clinton compared the complex European political environment to that of the two-party U.S. system, before adding:

"I have never understood multiparty democracy.

"It is hard enough with two parties to come to any resolution, and I say this very respectfully, because I feel the same way about our own democracy, which has been around a lot longer than European democracy."

Clinton is pretty clearly getting tired; as the article says, she's getting toward the end of a gruelling around-the-world tour. So there may be nothing more to this than the natural slips of weariness. But once again our American self-centeredness (along with the fantasies of grandeur it brings) is showing.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Wearing Vigil, Prayer, and Fast

Text not available
Poems of Christina Rossetti By Christina Georgina Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti

Aquinas on Unjust Laws

But laws are unjust in two ways. In one way, through opposition to human good, from opposition to the aforesaid things, either from the end, as when some magistrate imposes on subjects burdensome laws not pertaining to common utility, but rather to cupidity and vainglory; or else from the source, as when someone makes law beyond the power committed to him; or else from the form, as when unequal burdens are dispensed to the multitude, even if ordered to common good.

ST 1-2.96.4

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Descartes on Concepts and Necessary Existence

I mentioned in the post on Byrne's article that Descartes already had answers to Byrne's big objection to the ontological argument (which I think, for a number of reasons, is inferior to Kant's objection). And well he should, for a variation of that argument had been put forward by Caterus in the First Replies, and Descartes responded to it at some length. Here's a small part of his discussionAT VII, 117; CSM 83).

It must be noted that possible existence is contained in the concept or idea of everything that we clearly and distinctly understand; but in no case is necessary existence so contained, except in the case of the idea of God. Those who carefully attend to this difference between the idea of God and every other idea will undoubtedly perceive that even though our understanding of other things always involves understanding them as if they were existing things, it does not follow that they do exist, but merely that they are capable of existing. For our understanding does not show us that it is necessary for actual existence to be conjoined with their other properties. But, from the fact that we understand that actual existence is necessarily and always conjoined with the other attributes of God, it certainly does follow that God exists.

Whatever may be said against this, it in fact is an adequate response to the objection Byrne raised against it, at least if that objection is developed no more than Byrne develops it; particularly when added to the rest of Descartes's discussion both in the First Replies and in the rest of his Replies to the Objections. Unless we have suddenly decided to overrule arguments by fiat, we have to take into account the actual defenses that have been made against objections before; otherwise we are just repeating things that have been answered before, and moving the discussion nowhere.